Second in a series about doubt, rationalization, being mean while debating, and a problem with the empirical assessment of the effectiveness of arguments.
In my last post I explained how I used to struggle with my faith a lot more than I do now. This wasn’t just emotional porn, it was preparing for the argument I want to make now. Basically I’m proffering myself as an example of someone reacting to a certain style of argumentation.
See, if, as I claim, throwing out my religion was a life option for years, well, why didn’t I? What was holding me back? I like to think it was intellectual integrity, but that’s not the whole story. Sure, intellectual integrity was what made me notice that the regular thoughts of it all being bullshit weren’t founded in any new arguments but rather in the situation I described in that last post. So basically it explains why I didn’t want to capitulate to any particular pang of doubt. But, given that I wasn’t praying or really living Christianity in any other way, and given that people become what they do, how did I manage to resist that process for years on end?
Well, the answer is that I had a dirty little trick that would reliably quash that kind of thought if only for a while. And it could be done in half an hour tops. That trick was – tada – reading rabidly atheist fora on the Internet. Thirty minutes at the then still extant forum at Internet Infidels or later at reddit or in particularly hard cases Pharyngula would reliably crush any thought of those folks being on the right side.
One part of why this worked (the less interesting part for purposes of my present discussion) was that Internet atheists clearly didn’t conform to their self image of superior rationality. For example, Jesus Mythicism is, if anything, scientifically less respectable than creationism, but still extremely popular with Internet atheists. This is clearly an arguments are soldiers thing. Now this isn’t an argument against atheism any more than the existence of creationists is an argument against Christianity. But it does disrupt their narrative of atheism being a product of their superior rationality. If they were atheist because they were more rational, they actually would have to be more rational on average and that doesn’t comport with the actual facts on the ground. And Jesus Mythicism isn’t an isolated example. Load of Internet atheists also believe the Church thought the Earth was flat, inflate the number of inquisition victims by several orders of magnitude , etc. Basically the atheist creation myth is Enlightenment science escaping the authority trap, overcoming centuries of darkness and oppression caused by religion and ever since being involved in an irreconcilable conflict with the remnant of the dark forces it overcame in the beginning. And whatever its merits of that myth may be as a morality tale, it is clearly worthless as history.
But the much more interesting part is that reading atheist fora nicely undermined atheism as a moral option. I used their way of arguing to demonstrate to myself that they were not a group I would be comfortable aligning myself with.
Part of this was the vacuous moral philosophy of movement atheism. Loads of Internet atheists explain that they are “good without gods”, and often I believe them. Yup, lots of atheists are good people, or at least as good as people get given that we all are fallen. But that is not the question I’m really interested in. What I actually would want to know is how an atheist can be good without Eupocrisy, or in other words how they can construct a coherent atheistic theory of morality. And for many of them I would also like to know how they propose to maintain their values on the social level given that they have discarded others based on a discursive system that produces constant shifts but can only lift but not create moral obligations. Mainstream Internet atheist discourse is not only totally disinterested in that kind of question, it will also routinely misinterpret it as that straw-manny all atheists are evil argument.
But the other part was quite simply their way of arguing. For example the perfection of straw-manning. Not only is straw-manning their main mode of arguing to the point that one may wonder if those folks ever talked to a real life Christian, that straw-manning is also protected by the brilliantly evil meme of the Courtier’s reply. Thus arises an epistemic bubble where ignorance is a virtue. But also the relentless mockery, the permanent accusations of stupidity the consistent refusal to differentiate between different versions of Christianity (which is like arguing against communism and calling it an argument against atheism), etc., etc. Basically I would see their writing and imagine them with foamy mouthy. And then I would feel reassured that this was not a group I would want to align myself with.
Now let me make two very obvious points.
First, my trick was unfair and epistemologically unsound. Sturgeon’s law practically guarantees it will be possible to find people arguing almost every proposition in that way. An atheist could easily pull the same trick by reading the right kind of Christian fora. I actually suspect many of them might be doing precisely this. This method will reinforce basically every belief, which makes it totally unsuited to distinguish between true and false ones.
Second, my trick was unhealthy. Basically I was defining myself by opposition against something rather than by anything positive – ironically the main problem I see with the New Atheism. And in doing so I was building up a lot of disgust and resentment against other people and objectifying them as props. And I was running in an ever narrower circle of reading the same kind of bad stuff again and again and again. By entangling my identity with not being a specific kind of person I was slowly turning into that very kind of person.
So I absolutely do not recommend this method of squelching doubt. It is unsound, evil, and, in the long run, counter-productive.
But my point is that it did work and that says something about that kind of argument: Basically trying to convince fence-sitters by mocking them and being just generally mean is counter-productive and I know that from the experience of being that fence-sitter.
Next up: A much more effective atheist argumentation style (but it caught me only after its main window of opportunity had passed.)